Friday, January 17, 2014

Playoff Preview: Patriots vs. Broncos

So the Broncos held up their end of the bargain, knocking off the Chargers Sunday, to set up a showdown in Denver for the AFC Championship. Stop me of you've read this before; it's Manning/Brady in the playoffs, the third time with the Super Bowl on the line. They split the first two such meetings, so this one is for bragging rights.

The two teams went head-to-head most recently on November 24 of last year, with the Patriots overcoming a 24-point deficit to pull out an overtime win. As is my method, I'll look at that game and consider whether or not enough has changed to alter the outcome. And trust me, in this game there is plenty of change, the only question is, will the outcome change, too. Read on to find out...

Factor #1: Injuries, Health, and The War of Attrition

The Patriots lost more players before the Denver game, the Broncos have lost more since. The biggest loss recently for the Patriots was tight end Rob Gronkowski, who played the entire game in November and finished with 7 catches, 90 yards, and 1 touchdown. They also had corner Aqib Talib in-and-out during the game, but their cornerbacks are as healthy as can be expected at this point (though the safeties are banged up).

Since November, the Broncos got back tight Julius Thomas (and his 65 receptions and 12 touchdowns) and corner Champ Bailey, though he isn't up to his usual standard of play. But they lost two key defenders: their best corner, Chris Harris, was injured Sunday and is out for the year, and their second-best pass rusher, Von Miller was injured a few weeks ago, and he is also done for the year. Also, Wes Welker didn't seem like himself in the last game, after suffering two concussions this season.

The three losses for the Broncos are much more concerning than the one for the Patriots, especially given that Denver's injuries are all on defense. The biggest factor plus for Denver is the return of Thomas, who diversifies their passing game significantly and makes it tough on a Patriots secondary that is somewhat banged up. However, the losses on defense will make it tough to stop the Patriots offense, even without Gronkowski.

Advantage: Patriots

Factor #2: The Weather And Venue

The last game was a nighttime affair in Foxboro, the wind was a steady 22mph (gusting to over 30mph), and the wind chill was 6-degrees at kickoff (and got colder as the game wore on). In other words, a tough night to pass the football. In Denver this Sunday, it's supposed to be sunny, in the 50s with a light 9mph wind. In other words, about as easy on a QB as any late-January outdoor game could be.

The move to Denver could be a bit problematic for the Patriots offense, but that will be mitigated slightly because speed-rusher Miller is on the shelf. However, the biggest change with the venue is that Manning can make all his calls, switches, and do his pre-snap adjustments without being affected by the crowd.

Advantage: Broncos

Factor #3: "Fumble!!"

In the gamebook from November, there were 20 players involved in either fumbling, forcing fumbles, or recovering fumbles. The list takes almost an entire page in the document -- 11 fumbles, 6 lost to the other team, and 27 points scored off fumbles.

The Patriots fumbled three times in the first quarter, which constituted one-third of their entire season total. And that put them in a quick 17-0 hole.

The Broncos had two muffed punts in the game, which constituted one-third of their season total! And the last one cost them the game in overtime.

Trust me, it doesn't matter how much they grease up the pig(skin) this Sunday, there won't be nearly that many fumbles in this game. Count on it.

Advantage: Neither

Factor #4: Why The Patriots Will Pass, Not Run

The Broncos ranked seventh in the NFL in rushing defense, both in yards per carry (3.9) and yards per game (101.6). For context, you hear a lot about the dominant Seattle defense, but Denver tied Seattle on both counts for the season. And if you need more evidence of how difficult it is to run on Denver, San Diego averaged 122.8 yards per game this season, and dominated the Bengals on the ground two weeks ago (196 yards) -- but the Chargers could muster only 65 yards on Sunday against the Broncos.

The Patriots will run the ball some, just to keep the defense honest. But they can't steamroll the Broncos they way they did the Colts last week, not with the stout inside defensive line Denver has.

However, there is another reason you'll see a lot more passing than running from the Patriots this Sunday -- Tom Brady's record against Broncos' defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio (in Denver and Jacksonville). Here is Brady's average game against Del Rio defenses:

24 of 34 (73%), 253 yards, 2.4 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 118.3 QB rating.

You read that right, 235 pass attempts and Del Rio's defenses have yet to pick one off. Brady is 7-0 in those games, with an average final score of 29-14. So even though the Pats have run the ball well lately, in this game their best strategy is to spread the field and sling it.

Advantage: Patriots

Factor #5: Why The Broncos Will Pass, Not Run

To be fair, the Broncos will run some, but not as much as the last game. In November, the Patriots played mostly nickel and dime defenses, daring the Broncos to run. And run they did -- 48 of 86 total plays (56%) and 280 of 412 total yards (68%). And as mentioned in my earlier blog entry, this was the first time in eight years Manning had fewer passing yards than one of his running backs had rushing yards.

And the result was a loss, with Manning's lowest passer rating and yardage totals all year (including the final game, when he only played the first half).

So no matter what defense the Patriots play, expect the Broncos to throw much more often than last time. In fact, expect that 56/44 run/pass ratio to be reversed, as Manning takes advantage of having Julius Thomas and Wes Welker on the field.

Advantage: Broncos

Quick Hits:

A)  Patriots punter Ryan Allen suffered a shoulder injury last week, and he missed the rest of the game. And as of now, the Patriots haven't signed a replacement. If he can't go, the Pats have to sign someone to replace Allen -- they can't risk having no kicker if Stephen Gostkowski gets injured in the Denver game.

B)  Denver was 4-3 in games against playoff teams, the Patriots were 2-2 against playoff foes.

C)  Denver tied for the most regular-season wins in 2013. And including this season, Brady and Manning have each quarterbacked three teams that had the most (or tied for the most) regular-season wins in the NFL. However, in only one of those years did one of them win the Super Bowl, too. (Trivia question: name the year one of them led the league in regular-season wins and won the Super Bowl... answer below.)

D)  Brady is 4-1 against teams with Denver's John Fox as head coach. Manning is 6-10 against teams with Bill Belichick as head coach.

E)  Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins has been properly praised for a great game against the Colts. But don't get too far ahead of yourself on him; he's the same guy who got beaten badly a few times in the loss to the Dolphins a month ago. And if any QB can get him out of position, it's Peyton Manning.

F)  The loss of Harris can't be minimized. Here is Phillip Rivers' stat-line on the drives following Harris' exit from the game: 10 of 16 (63%), 173 yards, 2 touchdowns, 0 INTs, and a QB rating of 138.8.


This is a really difficult game to call, but here is why I think the Patriots will win: Brady vs. Del Rio. Running the ball is great, but Sunday will be for passing, and I like Brady's chances against Del Rio better than Manning's against Belichick. Neither team will shut down the other, the QBs and offenses are too good. But in the end, the Patriots will stop the Broncos more often than the Broncos will stop the Patriots.

The Broncos' best chance is to score touchdowns and hold the Patriots to field goals. Denver has the clear edge in the red zone, with targets that can dominate physically and schemes that get guys open in tight spaces. They might be able to do this, and if so, the game will likely go Denver's way. I just don't expect them to score as many touchdowns as they need, not against an improving Patriots defense that gets very stingy in the red zone.

For a while I thought this would be the game where injuries caught up to the Patriots; and it might still be. But since the matchup in November, the Broncos got the worst of the injury bug, so on balance that long IR list doesn't mean as much now.

In either case, enjoy the game. And if you insist on betting for "entertainment purposes," I suggest you take the over.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 13-4 & 1-0!

PPS. Trivia Answer:
Brady's 2003 Patriots led the NFL with 14 regular-season wins and went on to beat the Carolina Panthers 32-29 for their second Super Bowl victory.

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